Football - Farewell to David Beckham, footballer

Even as he announced his retirement at the age of 38, four years after his 115th and last cap, David Beckham probably scoured Roy Hodgson's latest England squad for his name, proudly and defiantly "available for selection" to the end.

Reuters

Though denigrated for his superstar lifestyle and condemned as nothing more than a vehicle for shifting club shirts in the latter stages of his glittering, peripatetic career, Beckham remained a hugely popular figure throughout his homeland, to fans of all allegiances.

The fundamental reason was that, despite the tsunami of advertising, branding and showbusiness that accompanied his every move, he just loved playing football and loved playing football for England most of all.

"I just want people to see me as a hard-working footballer, someone that's passionate about the game, every time I've stepped on a pitch I've given everything that I have," he said after announcing his retirement on Thursday.

"At the end of my career that's how I look back on it and hope people see me."

Three years ago former England boss Fabio Capello said he thought the then-35-year-old was "probably a bit too old" for international football, but Beckham refused to close the door.

"I will never retire from international football," he said. "If I never get picked again or whether I get picked for one more game or 10 more games I'll be available."

In the latter years of his England career, when he had become a peripheral figure, the announcement of his name over the Wembley PA was nevertheless guaranteed to induce the loudest roar.

When he joined the fray for the final 32 minutes of what turned out to be his last international, a 2010 World Cup qualifier against Belarus, the stadium erupted.

It was not always such a harmonious relationship, however.

In 1998 he was booed throughout the country and his effigy hung from lamp-posts for the crime of petulantly kicking Diego Simeone and earning a red card during the last-16 World Cup defeat by Argentina.

Despite being public enemy number one, Beckham retained his dignity, returned to Old Trafford and poured his energies into his game.

He was a terrific all-round player with a great range of passing and a deadly eye for free kicks but his unique selling point was an almost uncanny ability to deliver mouth-wateringly inviting crosses from every position.

The film in his name was called "Bend it like Beckham" but the key factor was that nobody could.

A year after the pain of his St Etienne red card he was celebrating helping Manchester United to their remarkable treble of Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup, while he continued his international rehabilitation with ever-more authoritative displays.

He was first given the honour of captaining his country under caretaker coach Peter Taylor and he held the armband for the next six years, during which time he became the heartbeat of the team.

His inspired, freakishly energised display in the 2002 World Cup qualifier against Greece at Old Trafford, when his last-gasp free kick earned the draw that sent England to the finals, was probably the most memorable of his 115 internationals.

His stock mirrored the team's as he converted a penalty to gain national and personal World Cup revenge over Argentina in the group stage of the 2002 tournament only to contribute to Brazil's key goal en route to a quarter-final exit soon after.

His skied penalty in the quarter-final shootout defeat by Portugal in Euro 2004 was another painful moment, as were his touchline tears two years later when England lost to the same opposition at the same stage in the World Cup in Germany.

Distraught, he gave up the captaincy and when Steve McClaren took over as England manager he tried to make a statement of intent by dropping Beckham.

Beckham barely murmured, saying only that he remained available should the situation change.

A year later, still tearing up trees for Real Madrid, McClaren had no option but to recall him.

He went on to pass the 100 caps mark and eventually reach 115, a England record for an outfield player and topped only by the 125 of goalkeeper Peter Shilton.

Even though a ruptured achilles ruled out any chance of a last hurrah at the 2010 World Cup, Beckham jumped at the chance to help out the manager who had dropped him.

Acting as a "player liaison" he said he would happily carry the kit if it helped England succeed.

By then he had moved to the United States, again ignoring the fusillade of criticism that he was doing it only for money.

True enough, LA Galaxy earned a massive worldwide profile on the back of the deal but ask any of his team mates if they thought Beckham was there for a cushy retirement and you would get short shrift.

He duly helped Galaxy to successive MLS titles, while keeping his hand in back in Europe with loan spells in Milan, before leaving California for good for his final port of call at Paris St Germain.

He announced that he would donate all his salary to charity and at the end of his first season PSG were champions and Beckham, having also tasted glory with United and Real, became the first Englishman to win domestic titles in four countries.

By then, of course, his fame and fortune had spread beyond the wildest of wild dreams of the London schoolboy who always wanted to join United.

From the nervy, high-pitched youngster, the butt of easy jokes, Beckham developed into a smoothly articulate statesmen.

He was as comfortable alongside world leaders as he helped London's bid to land the 2012 Olympics as he was kicking a rag ball around with dirt-poor children on visits to the townships of South Africa.

Such is Beckham's wholesome image he was recently roped in as China's global soccer ambassador to repair the game's stained reputation there after a match-rigging scandal.

Last month he was named Britain's richest sportsman while his former pop star-turned designer wife Victoria is a multi-millionaire industry in her own right.

The fame and ridiculous fortune, however, have never been his driving force.

Earlier this year, having trained with Arsenal in a bid to keep sharp after leaving LA Galaxy, manager Arsene Wenger summed up the twice world player of the year runner-up thus:

"This guy has fantastic quality and has done the maximum in his career. Why? Because he loves football."

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